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Pittsburgh City Council Passes Budget, Revives Parks Tax As Year Winds Down

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council took a final vote to approve the city's half-billion dollar budget Monday -- and shortly afterward took steps to enact a year-old tax hike to help improve city parks.


Mayor Bill Peduto announced the $564 million budget in November, and in the weeks since, some residents have objected to the $111 million allotted to police spending in particular. Others objected that the city draws almost no operating support from large nonprofits like UPMC. 


City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who leads council on budget issues, said on Monday that many of those issues were beyond budgeters' control. 


Taxing nonprofits would require changing state law, and “Although the city did ask the state to include nonprofits in the payroll preparation tax in 2004, this request was denied,” Lavelle said. As for making sweeping cuts to the police budget, as activists have been demanding since this past summer, Lavelle said, "The city’s ability to cut positions is limited not only by state statutes like Section 239 and Act 111, it’s also limited by court precedent, arbitration decisions and collective bargaining agreements.”


Those rules prohibit the city from firing officers, unless for budget reasons -- and the city was able to compile a balanced budget without such moves, Lavelle said. 



Councilor Corey O’Connor – who is chair of the public safety committee – told WESA prior to the vote that the city had at least taken some steps to invest more in social services that should limit the use of police. The city is establishing an Office of Community Health and Safety to address mental-health and other concerns with an initial $5 million budget. 


“Obviously we’re not going to get everything we want in the budget,” O’Connor said. “But at least we’re trying to take some steps this year that will put more of an emphasis on those community and health services that people are in need of.” 


In any case, council may have to revisit the budget, since if the federal government does not step in to provide coronavirus aid for cash-strapped local governments, officials may have to take drastic action next year.


“If we do not see additional funds coming from federal or state bailouts, we’re going to have a larger deficit come next summer,” O'Connor said. “You know, it’s been mentioned by the mayor’s office that they may have to look at letting go 600 people.”


Meanwhile, in an afternoon meeting, council took a preliminary vote to begin collecting a controversial parks tax next year. Voters approved the tax in a November 2019 referendum: It would raise property taxes by $50 for every $100,000 a property is valued at. The money will be placed in a trust fund from which it must be spent on parks maintenance and improvements. 


City officials have held off on implementing the tax due to the coronavirus: Until last week, there had been no public action on the tax hike or the creation of the trust fund since last spring. But council took up the matter in the waning days of 2020. 


Council President Theresa Kail-Smith had originally been skeptical of the tax, but she said she had a change of heart on Monday.


“What I’ve noticed during COVID is more people are using our outdoor parks, more people have a need for the parks and a lot of people really don’t have great parks,” she said during the council meeting. “And the only way we’re going to be able to get those things done and help keep great places for people to use outside is by putting this tax in place.” 


The hike was opposed by just three of council's nine members: O'Connor, Deb Gross and Anthony Coghill. O'Connor said he supported the concept of the tax but worried about the timing, given economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic. Coghill speculated that voters would have rejected the tax if a vote were held in the current circumstances, and he worried it would make the city less competitive.


“It is one [tax] on top of another on top of another with us,” he said. “And we’re giving people every opportunity to say ‘pick the suburbs over us’ because of the taxes and because of the way we’re imposing taxes.”


Council is set to have its final vote on the tax next week.